Though 70 years have passed and pop culture has cheerfully appropriated perversities that would have shocked the pre-World War II avant-garde, the Weimar cabaret hovers in the imagination as the epitome of sophisticated depravity. Most obviously, there's the massive success of Sam Mendes' revival of "Cabaret." Artists as diverse as Marianne Faithfull, PJ Harvey, Lou Reed and Elvis Costello cover Kurt Weill, while Mick Jagger donned lipstick and a frock to play a Berlin cabaret drag queen in "Bent," the 1997 film about gay life during the Nazi reign of terror. Beyond that, the wry storytelling and sense of fetid decadence associated with the time live on in the music of Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Bryan Ferry and lesser known talents like the Tiger Lillies and San Francisco's Jill Tracy.
Nevertheless, the divine German chanteuse Ute Lemper, perhaps the world's foremost interpreter of the Berlin cabaret, is, sadly, unknown to most pop fans. Certainly, she's a star of musical theater -- she played Sally Bowles in a European touring production of "Cabaret" and, more famously, she was Velma Kelly in the recent run of "Chicago." But her albums are marketed as classical music, which masks the accessibility -- and deeply contemporary feel -- of her best work. It's ironic that she's stuck in this highbrow ghetto because the music on her "Berlin Cabaret Songs" was, in its day, the ultimate in risqui pop. That album contains, for example, the lesbian-chic ditty "When the Special Girlfriend," the queer anthem "The Lavender Song" and "Take It Off Petronella!" a satire about a trendy stripper.
One hopes the artificial wall between Lemper's work and the brooding pop of Cave et al. will be demolished by her fabulous new album "Punishing Kiss." Though she performs Weill's "Tango Ballad" on the record, the disc largely consists of music written by rock icons -- there's a track by Cave, one by Philip Glass, two by Tom Waits and three by Elvis Costello. Additionally, there's an 11-minute epic penned by reclusive cult crooner Scott Walker, and three tracks by idiosyncratic British band the Divine Comedy, whose Neil Hannon provides guest vocals throughout.
Because it's so consistent with Lemper's previous work, "Punishing Kiss" makes the continuum between artists like Weill and Waits explicit. She performs Nick Cave's "Little Water Song" with a campy sentimentality that underlines the lyrics' sly nastiness -- when she sings, "You take my breath away," she means it literally, since the song is about a woman being drowned by her lover. Backed by lugubrious strings, her ordinarily husky voice is lilting and, as always, marvelously theatrical.
Despite how well she carries off "Little Water Song," though, Lemper, who looks like a Valkyrian dominatrix on the album's cover, is far more suited to playing the femme fatale than the victim. She does just that on "Split," a duet with Hannon written by the Divine Comedy. Hannon's confident baritone becomes a whine as he berates Lemper's imperious, straying lover. "We had so much love," he sings, to which she replies coldly, "Love enough for three."
The contemporary longing for the sinister elegance of the Weimar cabaret is most clear on Philip Glass' "Streets of Berlin," which Mick Jagger first sang in "Bent." Here, "Streets of Berlin" is a tribute to the era, not an attempt to recreate its music. The song is full of digital effects and electric guitars rather than accordions or piano. Over bleak, haunting waves of noise, Lemper purrs seductively before launching into a glam rock chorus that recalls late-'70s Bowie. It's an entirely contemporary pop song, but its spirit of corrupt sensuality seems to reach back in time, to a world where debauchery had nothing to do with vulgarity.